Facets of an Academic’s Life, A Conversation with Michael Wertheimer

By Claretta Bellamy

Noted psychologist Michael Wertheimer (ΦΒΚ, Swarthmore College), the author of A Brief History of PsychologyMax Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory, and co-editor of all seven volumes in the series Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, has now published a memoir Facets of an Academic’s Life. The 500-page autobiography is broken down into 11 chapters detailing Wertheimer’s life— including the 92-year-old’s early childhood, career, and his current life in retirement. 

Wertheimer first began working on this volume eight years ago, having been encouraged by family, friends, and colleagues to create a memoir. With the help of his daughter Karellynne Wertheimer Watkins (ΦΒΚ, Swarthmore College) there are more than 400 gathered illustrations of people Wertheimer interacted with and places he traveled to in his lifetime. Facets of an Academic’s Life marks Wertheimer’s 51st book-length publication, not including the hundreds of scholarly articles based upon his work in the field of psychology. 

According to Wertheimer, his favorite part of the book is chapter 11, titled “Who Am I?” He says, “It goes into this kind of thinking of my gratitude for the miracle and blessing of life.”

Born in 1927, Wertheimer was raised alongside two of his siblings in Germany. At the age of six, Wertheimer’s family moved to the United States, residing in New Rochelle, New York, where his younger brother was born. In 1944, Wertheimer attended Swarthmore College to pursue his higher education. In addition to graduating with a bachelor’s degree with high honors in psychology, Wertheimer was also inducted into The Phi Beta Kappa Society. He later obtained a master’s degree in experimental psychology from Johns Hopkins University in 1949, before long receiving a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard University by 1952.

Wertheimer’s interest in psychology derived from his father Max Wertheimer, acclaimed psychologist and originator of the Gestalt theory. While in school, Wertheimer held an internship position in clinical psychology at Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts, but his teaching career started when he served as a teaching assistant at Johns Hopkins University in 1947, then at Harvard in 1949. Later, Wertheimer would go on to become a full-time instructor at Wesleyan University in 1952. He spent the remainder of his teaching career at the University of Colorado Boulder beginning in 1955 until he retired in 1993. 

In addition to being a Phi Beta Kappa member, Wertheimer served on the board of directors for the American Psychological Association (APA) from 2007 to 2009, and was a fellow of the APA’s numerous divisions, among them the Division of Experimental Psychology. He has received many awards over his lifetime, including the Distinguished Contributions to Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology award and a Lifetime Achievement Award for “sustained and unusual contributions to the history of psychology” from the APA. However, one award that Wertheimer is very proud of is the Gender Neutral Language Award from the Kappa women’s organization at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1990. This award was the first of its kind granted by the organization and was given to Wertheimer because he insisted on gender-neutral language in all presentations and written essays.  

Since graduating from Swarthmore, Wertheimer has been a continuous supporter of Phi Beta Kappa. Between 1973 and 1979, Wertheimer served as president of the Alpha of Colorado chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Today, he is still very proud of his Phi Beta Kappa affiliation and donates yearly to the Society. By keeping his original 1947 gold Phi Beta Kappa key as memorabilia in his Boulder, Colorado, home he is constantly reminded of the benefits a liberal arts and sciences education gave him.  

“A broad liberal education can be exceedingly valuable to any citizen for whatever they become expert in,” says Wertheimer. “The intellectual life can be tremendously rewarding, and getting a liberal education makes that possible,” he says.

In addition to his recent memoir, Wertheimer plans on releasing the 6th edition of A Brief History of Psychology, which he is co-authoring with neuropsychologist Antonio Puente. He is also considering a book-length publication exploring psycholinguistics, a field he is expert in. However, with such a prominent life filled with hard work and accomplishments, for now he will continue to relax in his retirement community overlooking the scenic mountains.

Claretta Bellamy earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Rutgers University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2019. Rutgers University is home to the Alpha of New Jersey chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. 

Photo of Michael Wertheimer by John Pregulman.